Harry Jaffe: D.C. still split by race 40 years after home rule debate

By |
Local,DC,Harry Jaffe,Marion Barry

Walking some neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., you might get the wrong idea about integration and race.

Sample the bars and restaurants around Logan Circle and up the 14th Street strip. You will see a colorful mix of black and white faces, Latinos and Asians. On a tour of Bloomingdale and Eckington and parts of Shaw, you might see young white families pushing strollers past rowhouses where African-American neighbors are relaxing on their porches.

But this idyllic snapshot turns out to be ephemeral. White families are moving into traditional African-American neighborhoods. The change can hurt. It can destroy families and rip apart neighborhoods. The tension in some parts of town is palpable. Then there are the sections of D.C. that remain starkly white or black.

Northwest neighborhoods along the Potomac River and the Maryland line are blindingly white -- Upper Caucasia in my book. That's still true for most of the city west of Rock Creek Park. Cross North Capital Street and head east over the Anacostia River bridges, and you will see few Caucasians, though that's changing.

These anecdotal glimpses show a city that's still hypersegregated. Polling numbers present us with harder-core assessments of race in D.C.

Pollsters have shared details of their work for candidates in next week's at-large council race. They asked to go unnamed. Here's what they found:

» Voters in predominantly black Wards of 5, 7 and 8 are likely to cast their ballots for Anita Bonds, the veteran Democratic activist. She's the acting at-large member, thanks to her popularity on the Democratic State Committee. Bonds goes way, way back to the early days of the Marion Barry machine. As Barry's head of constituent services for years, one could say she had her hands on the controls. Bonds is African-American.

» Likely voters polled in Wards 1, 2, 3 and 6 responded to questions that made it clear they would vote for one of the four white candidates running for the at-large seat.

On ethical issues, white voters said, "Throw the bums out!" Black voters' response: "They are our bums, so keep them."

I suspect D.C.'s African-American voters are circling the wagons because they feel more threatened than ever. They once held a strong majority of the population; now the city is split 50-50. The city council showed strong black majorities for decades. Of the 12 current members, seven are white, five are African-American. If Bonds loses to a white candidate, there will be more white council members than ever under the home rule government.

The fear factor explains why most African-Americans will vote for Anita Bonds. Put yourself in their place. Makes sense. It also makes sense that white voters will cast their ballots for anyone but Bonds, because she is such a clear representative of the city's Old Guard and old ways. And because she's played the race card.

So despite the city's integrated veneer, we are very much divided by race, perhaps more than ever. And the proof will be in next week's election.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonian.com.

View article comments Leave a comment
Author:

Harry Jaffe

Columnist
The Washington Examiner